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Farmers' hopes dim

House doesn’t act on disaster relief bill

While lawmakers in both houses of Congress managed to hammer out healthcare reform legislation before the Christmas break, some “ailing” Mississippians — the agriculture community — were left wondering if any help was coming their way. Certainly, the current prognosis is bleak.

The U.S. House of Representatives left Washington without passing disaster assistance legislation (H.R.4177, co-sponsored by Mississippi Democratic Rep. Travis Childers and Arkansas Democratic Rep. Marion Berry and introduced in early December) for farmers who suffered catastrophic losses in 2009 due to adverse weather. Drought and flooding rains destroyed nearly $450 million, or 27.7 percent, of the state’s row crops. The losses were so devastating that even with crop insurance and assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Farm Bill, many of the state’s farmers, particularly soybean and cotton producers, may be out of business in 2010.

H.R.4177 would provide disaster assistance utilizing a mechanism similar to the Farm Bill’s direct payments. The legislation also includes $650 million to assist specialty crop producers, $150 million in assistance for livestock producers and $42 million for first handlers of cottonseed.

Farmers’ hopes rested with H.R. 4177 and similar legislation in the Senate co-introduced by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). With the House’s inaction, those hopes dimmed noticeably. No disaster relief legislation can be expected from that body for weeks — if ever.

H.R.4177 was introduced Dec. 2. It was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture and to the Committee on Appropriations for a period to be subsequently determined by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. There has been no movement on the bill since then.

It is uncertain what Childers next action will be. Childers was on break and was unavailable for comment at press time. However, during a recent disaster tour of the Mississippi’s First Congressional District to show USDA officials the extent of the devastation, Childers vowed to continue to fight for disaster relief.

“Producers throughout North Mississippi are suffering enormous profit losses, and local economies are struggling to stay afloat due to heavy rains that left farmers unable to harvest up to 50 percent of their crops,” Childers said. “In order to ensure our hard-hit counties receive the relief they need, it is critical that the USDA, the organization responsible for providing disaster assistance, has a first-hand understanding of the severity of our farmers’ losses.

“I will continue working to enact disaster assistance legislation and to make sure our farmers and communities are able to make a full recovery.”

Still, it seems now that the Cochran-Wicker-Lincoln legislation, Senate bill S.2810, may be farmers’ “next last chance.” Introduced Nov. 20 and similar to H.R.4177, it was read twice and referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. There has been no movement on the bill since that day, either.

Cochran was also unavailable for comment at press time. However, Chris Gallegos, a spokesperson for Cochran, told the AP Dec. 23 that the urgency remains and that Cochran would work in Congress “to move this forward as soon as we can.”

In a statement, Travis Satterfield, a Bolivar County farmer and Delta Council president, said the Senate’s proposal “represents the only opportunity for farmers to receive disaster relief before they make preparations for their 2010 crop production loans…”

Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell does not have an estimate as to how many farmers may park their tractors for good if timely help does not come, but said the state stands to lose a significant amount of farms. It is the worst situation for the state’s farming community in at least a half-century, he added.

Even with additional federal assistance, some farmers may not be able to stay afloat.

Johnny Swayze, a producer based in Benton, said, “Regardless of whether this legislation gets passed, the next two years will be painful for producers to try and recoup losses from the 2009 crop year. The important thing is this assistance, in many cases, will be the determining factor if many farmers even get the opportunity to dig out of the hole. This is how serious the situation is, and why we are so grateful for Congressman Childers, Sen. Cochran, Sen. Wicker and our friends in Arkansas — Congressman Berry and Sen. Lincoln — for leading the effort in the U.S. Congress.”

About Wally Northway

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